What’s a dream you’ve had to let go of and how has that process shaped you?
The one I had to let go of is not really one that people would expect or count as a dream. It has been the house we live in. We moved to Chicago a little over 11 years ago and came with very little equity into a huge housing market in a very affluent suburb. I was pretty convinced that we’d never be able to live here because we just couldn’t find anything that we could afford. We did finally find something, but our house is small. I know small is relative, but it’s not the house I dreamed we’d always have. It’s not the house that my kids will invite all their friends over to and hang out at. And it’s not the house that I can just throw open the doors wide for holidays and say, “Come on over, and bring a dish, and we’ll just hang out,” or “Come watch the football game!”
We’re very hospitable people; hospitality is a big deal to us, so living in a space that limits my ability to be hospitable has been hard, even though I know that hospitality is not just determined by your physical space. It has been a daily—and I’m not exaggerating—a daily letting go of what I imagined my life to be in a house. Every day when I wake up, I have to let go of the dream and focus on being grateful for the things that we do have, including a house that is fine—there’s nothing wrong with it.
But that’s the thing about the dreams that we have to let go of. It’s not like one day you wake up and let go of something and say, “Oh—all right, I’m done with that.” There is a process that we go through; we don’t just let go one time; we have to let go over and over and over again. And letting go might mean that there are always remnants of the dream in our hands, that it never fully leaves, especially when it’s something we have worked for and dreamed about maybe for our whole lives. It’s a process that is really difficult that involves grieving. But again, it comes back to, Do I really trust that this is part of God’s plan?Or, even if it’s not part of his plan, that it still is okay? We have to remind ourselves of the truth of who we are and who God is. And we have to be really patient with ourselves and extend ourselves a lot of grace.
And what about a dream that you have seen come to fruition and how that shaped you?
For me it’s been writing a book. Writing a book by the time I was 40 was my dream. But it started later on. I didn’t really know that I wanted to start writing until I was in my 30s. It wasn’t something I dreamed about from the time I was a little kid.
When we start out with a dream that we’re not sure is going to come true, we have to act like it is. Because it’s definitely not going to come true if we don’t act in a way that shows we believe it will come true. I think that’s the first part of the journey. That’s what I did. Faithfulness, discipline, and sacrifice are huge. I just kept writing things down because I believed that it was what I was supposed to be doing, even though I didn’t know where it was going to go. I took all of the opportunities—I call them the nooks and crannies in my life—to write things down and to invest in my dream. For me that meant taking time when I didn’t feel like it and would have rather been out shopping or having coffee with a friend or doing any number of things. You have to say no to some things that other people might be saying yes to. Your life has to look a little bit different when you really want to invest in your dreams. I have been shaped by learning what it means to really be diligent at something and be faithful no matter what. It’s the long obedience in the same direction.
I think the other piece that’s been so shaping for me is understanding that vulnerability comes with the territory of pursuing a dream. Anytime you take a risk and have the courage to step into what God is calling you to do, you’re going to feel vulnerable. You feel naked, and you feel exposed, and you feel foolish at times. You wonder why you’re doing this, and you feel insecure. You hear all the negative voices. I had to continually come back to, Do I believe that God is who he says he is? Do I believe that I am who he says I am? And if those two things are true, then I can journey through all of these other things I’m feeling and experiencing. But I had to learn to continually come back to those two and learn to accept that vulnerability comes with the process, and that’s okay.
So I’ve been shaped by what it means to take the risk to be vulnerable with my thoughts, with other people, with following my dreams in spite of all the other things that tell me I shouldn’t. And there is satisfaction that comes in that. I also think it expands your capacity to empathize with other people who are going through their own journeys that maybe sometimes are lonely. I have definitely found as I have offered myself to my own dreams and to the writing process that it has expanded my capacity to sit with people in those vulnerable places and to really empathize with them and encourage them and dream with them, because I know what it’s like. And that goes back to the becoming, because you’re not really expecting that you’re going to live into this dream and then all of a sudden it’s going to expand your capacity to be more empathetic. But, again, that’s the way God shapes us and uses the process of offering ourselves to our dreams to change who we are.
Dreams can become idols. How do we accurately assess if we’ve fallen into that? And how do we keep ourselves from falling into that?
I talked earlier about sacrificing, and there are a lot of things that we need to sacrifice to pursue our dreams. But we always need to keep that in balance and ask ourselves questions like, Is that the only thing I’m sacrificing for? Is that the only thing I’m talking and thinking about? Am I becoming a person who sits in a circle of people who, all of a sudden, only know me by this? Am I unable to be fully present, or to listen, or to ask good questions because I’m so busy pursuing my own stuff?
Self-absorption has become my checkpoint of when I know I’m letting my dream become too self-consuming. I’ve just realized that when my head is down and all I see is my own little world, I need to start lifting my eyes and looking outward. I should start serving other people and make it a point to shut my mouth about my own life and really draw in other people.
I also meet with a spiritual director once a month, Carla, and I remember her saying to me once, “Our dreams don’t define us.” And I was like, “Oh, wait—what?” I realized I had become too myopic with my own life, my own dream, my own pursuit, because I really had to stop and think about her statement. But the more I thought about it and processed it, I realized how freeing it was to say, if I set out to write a book and that doesn’t happen, this does not define who I am. If I write a book and no one buys it, that does not define who I am. If I write a book and people hate it, that does not define who I am.
That is hard for me to accept, because when things like that go well, you want it to define you. You want people to say, “Wow! That was awesome, and you’re awesome, and that’s who you are.” But we’re never just one thing. Anytime that our life becomes about just one thing, we’ve lost sight of the becoming. I really do believe that part of not letting our dreams define us is continually being others-focused as much as we can, and not self-focused.
And like I said, that’s so freeing when I realize that this doesn’t have to define me—that actually, how I treat other people and how I walk through life and how I reflect God’s glory to the people around me should be my focus. Not that I don’t fail at those things often, but they are something that I feel like I can humbly walk in, whereas if I start letting my dream define me—gosh. I can fail at all kinds of things that come with that. And if I let that define me, then I’m going to feel like a failure.
Wow—can you tell I’m a little worried about failing? Maybe I need to process that with my spiritual director . . . One of the important practices for me in this area for sure has been having other people in my life like Carla and mentors who just constantly call me back to lifting my eyes up to God and to continually putting my focus there.
You talk about wrestling with comparison and jealousy along the way as you look at other people’s lives, calling comparison “a persistent and insatiable evil, a black hole of inadequacy that always wins, always leaves us feeling empty, like we’re never quite doing enough, that we never quite are enough.” Are there ways we can lessen this temptation toward comparison?
There’s always going to be somebody who is better than us at something and someone who’s worse than us at something. Often we plot ourselves on a scale that’s always moving based on the people we’re around. Obviously that’s not a healthy way to live. And when we start defining ourselves by the people to the right and left of us, we’re always going to either feel better or worse about ourselves, depending on who we’re looking at.
So one of the things I keep returning to—and this is not new to any of us—is the fact that God has uniquely wired each one of us, that he’s given us each our own stories. There’s nobody else who grew up in the family you grew up in, the house you grew up in, and the street you lived on, that had the education you did, who has the same wounds that you do, the friends that you do. There’s no one who has your same personality, your same DNA. When you really stop and look at all of those things, it’s truly amazing how unique each person is, and the perspective and story and gifts that each person brings to the table. So we have to learn to value and celebrate—not just with lip service but truly in our souls—the other gifts that people bring to the table, knowing that it doesn’t threaten our own gifts. Celebrating somebody else does not in any way diminish what we bring to the table. There can be full celebration all the way around without us feeling threatened or less than because there are people in the room who are really gifted, capable, competent, beautiful. We all can bring that to the table.
It’s very easy for me to celebrate gifts that are different from mine. The places where I feel most threatened are in areas closest to my gifts and passions. So when I see someone who stands up and teaches a roomful of people, or preaches, or writes and knocks it out of the park, then all of a sudden I feel like I’m not good enough. All that self-doubt, all those insecurities, start popping up, and I just automatically assume that the unique piece I bring to the table is not good enough, and that I should just shut my mouth and sit down.
So I have been really intentional about pushing myself in this area. When I feel the most vulnerable and the most threatened and the most closed-in-on by someone who has more talent than I do in an area where I desperately want to be talented, I have forced myself to lavish praise. And not in a fake or manipulative way, but as a practice for myself to say, It’s okay to acknowledge the beauty that this person brings to this room. I bring my own beauty to the same room, and there’s plenty of room at the table for all kinds of beauty, and no two are the same. And so I’ve forced myself to write the encouraging email when inside I’m dying in my own insecurity, but also to do it in a way that I actually mean it. That’s the Holy Spirit. That is not me, because I can’t do that in my own power, but I’ve just gone out of my way to be a voice of encouragement for people who most threaten me, because I know it’s good for my own soul. It’s really, really challenging.
But when we understand that, we can learn to say to ourselves and each other, “You be you. And I’m going to celebrate you all the way, because that’s who God made you to be.” And I think the more we can do that for each other, then the stuff about comparison and insecurity just starts to become less, because we’re being the people that God wants us to be.
What advice would you give a recent graduate who is exploring career options and making decisions about the future?
I would say a couple of things. First, you do not have to have your whole future mapped out from the moment you graduate. And in fact, you’re going to spend a lot of years not knowing what you’re supposed to be doing and not having it figured out. So relax into that a little bit. Know that the journey ahead is a long one for most of us. Allow yourself the permission to try some different things, to not have it all figured out, to explore some different opportunities. Know that circumstances are going to change and you’re going to change too. And you’re going to learn a lot along the way by making some mistakes and starting at the bottom somewhere.
I would also say, spend a lot of time looking inwardly and getting to know how you’re wired, what unique gifts you bring to the table, and what brings you joy and life. I think our education system is set up in a way that oftentimes sends people off to find a job without helping them ask some of those deeper questions about what space in this world they could step into where they could make a difference, where they can influence others through their gifts, but in a way that also brings them joy and life. Whatever you end up doing, there’s a good chance you’re going to spend a lot of time doing it. So finding something that is meaningful that brings you joy is more important than finding the perfect job that pays the perfect amount in the perfect place that you want it to be.
In addition, we need to have people in our lives who name what they see in us and encourage us in those directions. And we need to do it with others, whether it’s with our friends or coworkers or fellow students. When you see things in them that only they can do, that they are uniquely gifted and called to do, say to each other, “Hey, I see this in you, and you need to do more of that.” Maybe no one has ever encouraged them in that direction. I don’t know where I would be in my life if, especially over the last 10 years, I didn’t have different people stepping into those places and saying, “Hey, I see this in you. You should really think about doing more of that.” I think that’s so important.
And lastly I’d say, good luck. Be grace and truth and always pursue the becoming. It’s really all going to be okay.
Image by twentyonehundred productions team member Jono Gay.